Cafe Society

Dam Straight

When partners George Blincoe and Michael Reed brag that their brewpub serves the "best dam beer" and "best dam food" in Colorado, they can be forgiven the hyperbole, if not the pun--because when you open yet another brewery/restaurant in a county that boasts more breweries per capita than any other in the state, you've got to have a certain amount of chutzpah.

And judging from the crowds this place has been drawing since its late-February opening, the Dillon Dam Brewery (so named for its proximity to Summit County's Dillon Reservoir) can lay claim to an early victory.

Blincoe, the longtime manager of the nearby Arapahoe Cafe and Pub, and Reed, former brewmaster for the Breckenridge Brewery, knew they wanted a place "in this neck of the woods," Blincoe says. After searching about for a site, they found a likely--if not perfect--candidate in a onetime nightclub/sports bar called Tommy C's.

The two (along with six other partners) began the extensive remodeling project in August 1996 with the hope that the pub would be open by mid-January, in time to catch the busy and lucrative ski season. While carpenters fashioned the interior trim from blue spruce milled for them on the Western Slope, Blincoe toured proven successes and gleaned menu ideas from such brewpubs as Denver's Rock Bottom and the Wynkoop Brewing Company.

"We tried to think about foods that would be really good with beer," Blincoe says, "and I believe in the concept of the brewpub in terms of offering real standard things--burgers and sandwiches--and offering them all day long and all evening long. That way, you end up being able to come in more often. I like Rock Bottom in that it gives you that flexibility."

The partners signed on chef Michael McKillop and then waited anxiously for opening day. And waited. And waited. They watched as February began slipping away into the inevitable end of the ski season.

When the pub finally opened its doors February 24, it was still a work in progress. The landscaping was incomplete, the menu was unfinished, and any plans for a debut bash were put on hold. "Basically," says Blincoe, "we were so busy, we couldn't slow down to do anything."

The menu changed as they went along. "If I didn't like the quality, or it was not produceable on a consistent basis," Blincoe explains, "a dish was eighty-sixed. A duck entree was one of the first to go. I believe in menu changes."

Now, five months after the brewpub opened, he estimates that up to 20 percent of the food offerings are in a state of flux. Blincoe and McKillop adjust the menu based on seasonal changes and personal preferences. "A lot of times it's more improvement than real changes," Blincoe says. "For example, we had a veggie wrap that didn't have as much flavor as we wanted. We added more pesto, brushed it with sauce. It was a big improvement.

"But certain things are untouchable," he adds. "We might play around with the quesadillas, but we'll never get rid of them."

With the onset of the "mud season" and the less-hectic summer months, Blincoe and company finally found the time to throw a "grand reopening party." Soon after, we ventured in. As beneficiaries of Denver's booming brewpub scene and relative newcomers to Summit County, we were thirsting for good beer. But we also wanted to know if the Dam Brewery food justified putting our money where our mouths are.

The restaurant was about half full when we arrived on a Monday evening. Although the brewery often features live music--Psychodelic Zombiez, Raised on Rhubarb (a bluegrass band) and "acid jazz" Phat Vibe--this night, all the noise was coming from contented customers. Softball players were bellied up to bar, men and women hustled in and out carrying growlers of beer to go, and obvious tourist types hunkered down over their menus.

The beer choice was easy: Two trays of samplers, please, and give us some time to look over the appetizer list.

The hors d'oeuvre menu offers many standards you'd expect to find in a brewpub--onion rings, nachos, wings, those quesadillas--along with a dash of the unexpected, including conch fritters with sides of Key lime Dijon horseradish and watermelon salsa. Since I originally hail from Florida, I had to test the conch ($5.95) against fond memories of fresh-from-the-sea mollusks, while my husband opted for a bread dip made with Asiago cheese and spinach ($6.75).

But first, the beer.
Our waitress lined up nearly a dozen small glasses of beer in front of us, in a setup reminiscent of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Karen Allen tosses back shots in a drinking contest with an aging Sherpa. I was as determined as she had been to finish every drop--all in the name of research, of course.

My husband and I consider ourselves to be more knowledgeable than the average beer drinker: Mark because he's a home brewer, and me by dint of being named Westword's "all-squad quaffer" a few years back.

They were tapped out of the raspberry-flavored Wendell Brothers' Electric Ale, which was just as well, since we're not overly fond of fruity beers. According to the menu, the wheat beer--generally thought of as a hot-weather ale--offers an "inference" of lemon, but I detected no hint of citrus in the nondescript ale. And the Yo Han Bock, we agreed, was too thick and sweet.

Mark smiled, however, as he sipped the coffee-colored Old Dillon Oatmeal Stout. "My kind of stout," he said. "Thick and creamy, with a strong roasted-barley flavor." Sweet George's Brown was malty and smooth. But our hands-down favorite was the Brew Brothers' Extra Pale Ale, a crisp, clean, Vienna-style brew that Reed and principal brewer John Androsky dry-hop using two kinds of hops.

The Dam owners understand beer, all right, but I was feeling somewhat smug as I dug into the fritters. "What does a Colorado boy know about conch?" I thought. More than you'd guess. Chef McKillop is a former Floridian who enjoys experimenting with the tastes of the Caribbean. For his fritters, he blends diced conch with scallions in a cornbread batter and deep-fries it. The result is a hushpuppy-like dumpling that immediately transported me to the fish camps of my youth. The Dijon sauce further emphasized the flavor of the sea, but the watermelon salsa was a bad match for the subtle conch.

I approached the bread dip, too, with some trepidation; too many restaurants promise dishes made with the trendy Asiago cheese and instead offer some salty substitute. This dip, however, was as advertised, with the nutty flavor of the cheese set off nicely by sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and garlic. If only the "Hungry Mother bread" had been a tad more moist, I could have made a meal of this starter.

But we still had our entrees to go. We'd bypassed pub grub (burgers and buffalo bratwurst in homemade sauerkraut) in favor of more traditional dinner fare. Given McKillop's Caribbean emphasis, though, some of the offerings are far from traditional: jumbo prawns in a tequila-and-Asiago cream sauce over penne pasta, for instance, and rum-and-pepper-painted broiled salmon with mango/habanero sauce. We finally opted for the sesame-crusted, pan-seared yellowfin tuna ($16.95) and a "cowboy steak" served atop a horseradish potato pancake ($18.95).

I appreciate a chef who is willing to experiment, as McKillop does, but some experiments are bound to fail. The spinach-Asiago cheese salad that accompanied my tuna, for example, was served with an unpleasantly mouth-puckering pesto vinaigrette. And the fish itself, while a nice, well-cooked piece, was overwhelmed by its black-and-white-sesame-seed crust.

The most overwhelming thing about the steak was its size: "Sixteen ounces," our waitress reported. "I like to warn people." But the beef was tasty enough that we were happy to take the remainder home, although the potato pancake--which had the consistency of thick mush--would not have survived the trip.

But who needed the spuds, anyway? A growler of extra pale ale was all the company our doggie bag required.

Dillon Dam Brewery, 100 Little Dam Road, Dillon, 1-970-262-7777. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. daily, with full menu available until 10 p.m.

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Karen Bowers